Leica V-LUX 30 Review
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The V-LUX 30 is Leica's latest travel-zoom camera, featuring a 16x, 24-384mm lens, built-in GPS geo-tagging, 3D Photo Mode and a touchscreen LCD. Successor to the V-LUX 20 model, VLUX 30 has a new 14.1 megapixel MOS sensor which enables full 1080i HD movies in the AVCHD format and fast continuous shooting at either 10fps or 5ps with continuous auto-focus turned on. A built-in GPS unit tracks where each photo is taken, automatically embedding the latitude and longitude in the EXIF data and also now including landmark information from over 1 million locations. The Intelligent Resolution function can be used to digitally boost the zoom ratio to 21x without hardly any loss in quality, or to simply make still images and video look better, at least according to Leica. The V-LUX 30 also implements A, S and M exposure modes for creative photographers, in addition to Intelligent Auto and a variety of scene modes for beginners. An upgraded Sonic Speed auto-focus system, high-speed and high-performance Venus Engine FHD processor, POWER O.I.S. anti-shake system, a 3-inch touch-sensitive LCD screen with 460k dots, and the inclusion of Adobe Photoshop Elements 9 and Adobe Premiere Elements 9 complete the headline specifications. The Leica V-LUX 30 is available in black for £550 / $750.
Ease of Use
Like it or not, being a Leica owner costs. And to paraphrase 80s show Fame, right here is where you start paying… in the case of the V-LUX 30 compact snapshot the princely sum of £550 or thereabouts. Those of you already spitting out a mouthful of coffee will be aware that's a cool £200+ more than the comparable Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ20 'travel zoom', which likewise marries a 14.1 megapixel resolution from a 1/2.33 CMOS sensor to a 16x optical reach, and yet slides equally well into a trouser pocket. You'll just need slightly deeper pockets for the Leica version.
Having got the elephant in the room out of the way first, let's concentrate on what you get from the Leica for the price of an entry-level DSLR and standard zoom. Apart, that is, from the really rather attractive muted red and silver logo inset into the top right hand edge of the handgrip, where it stands out against the sober matt black finish of the rest of the camera. It's understated however, as most things with any class are. Oh, and there's the choice of not one but two optional leather cases, the tan leather with shoulder strap being our personal retro favourite at a 'manageable' £80. Ideal for the amateur street photography the Leica is best suited to, and where that broader than average lens reach comes in particularly handy for candid portraits. On this camera it's all about those little details.
Like its Panasonic near doppelganger, the V-LUX 30 features built-in GPS for (reasonably reliably) tagging pictures with location and date within the Exif file to further its ultimate travel/pocket camera credentials, with the convenience of one touch video recording via a dedicated button set into its top plate. Framing and reviewing shots and here 1080i Full HD video in AVCHD compression format is via the 3-inch 4:3 aspect ratio LCD at the rear, identically sized to its Panasonic cousin's, and featuring a 460k dot resolution, which is ample for its dimensions. It's also a touch screen that you don't actually have to use as a touch screen as there are sufficient physical controls alongside to almost forget this fact; until a stray thumb accidentally fires the shutter and you end up with a picture of your legs or the ground.
Video quality is pretty good as it happens - with focus quick to adjust as you zoom in or out. Sound quality is clear too, if the microphone is occasionally and inevitably buffeted by wind when recording outdoors.
Also slightly more ample than the competition is a depth of 33mm (compared to say the 5x zoom Fuji Z900EXR's 15.2mm depth if you really want skinny) but a broader than average focal range the equivalent of 24-384mm in 35mm terms is a fair trade off, maximum lens aperture f/3.3. And at a weight of 219g with all varieties of SD card and 260-shot battery (CIPA standard testing) - and again basic spec that marries with the TZ20 - the Leica V-LUX 30 is hardly classifiable as 'chunky'. In fact proportions are a manageable 104.9x57.6x33.4mm.
Ticking the boxes for the latest must haves, a 3D shooting option features among the top plate dial shooting modes. On the Leica this stereoscopic feat is achieved by shooting a short frame burst as the camera is panned through a 10cm arc. These are then combined for stereoscopic dynamism, being saved as an MPO file only viewable with the requisite 3D TV. The camera's own backscreen remains resolutely 2D; however you can set the camera in this mode to generate a Fine quality 2D JPEG alongside a MPO file in this mode, so at least you do have something to look at almost immediately.
From the front the Leica V-LUX 30 and the TZ20 resemble two peas from the same pod, with differences subtle. These include the outer chrome surround to the lens on the Panasonic replaced by all black on the V-LUX, and the thin curved sliver of chrome on the TZ20's handgrip omitted for a less showy all-matt appearance on the Leica. The latter's grip is more flattened, so there's not really much for the fingers to gain purchase on, though a collection of nine raised nodules on the backplate fall under the thumb as an additional (if equally modest) means of steadying your aim.
Also identical to the Panasonic on the Leica's front plate are the built-in flash top left of the lens at the front, and porthole housing the self timer/AF assist lamp top right.
The V-LUX 30's top plate meanwhile features only subtle differences in styling too, with controls being identical in number and layout - right down to the order and amount of shooting modes presented on the familiar bottle-top styled dial (10 in total). That's fine - if it ain't broke don't fix it, right?
For the record then, looking down on the camera moving from right to left we find the aforementioned dedicated video record button top right, where it hovers above the handgrip and so falls readily under the forefinger. A press of this and the camera begins filming no matter what alternative stills mode might have been selected - so there's no actual video mode logo on the dial itself. It takes a moment or two for filming to kick-in however, screen display narrowing to 16:9 aspect ratio and black bands cropping the default 4:3 LCD image top and bottom.
As on the Panasonic, set just behind this button is an old-fashioned on/off switch (rather than button), the sturdiness of which at least means that it's less easy to accidentally activate the camera with a stray finger or thumb when fetching it out of, or placing it into, a pocket. Give this a flick and the Leica is ready for action within 2-3 seconds, lens extending from its retracted position flush to the body to maximum wideangle setting while the rear LCD follows it by bursting into life.
The top plate shutter release button is large and springy yet with a definite halfway point as you gently, push down in order for the camera to determine focus and exposure. This happens more or less instantly, AF point/s highlighted in familiar green with a beep of affirmation that the user is clear to go ahead and take the shot. Squeeze the shutter release button fully and a full 14.1 megapixel shot is committed to memory in 2-3 seconds: like the other timings pretty average but perfectly acceptable. At no point do you really feel you're killing time waiting for the camera to catch up.
Encircling this control is a lever for operating the V-LUX 30's whopper of a 16x optical zoom, the action is of which is slow, steady and decisive so as to not induce motion sickness in the viewer when filming video, or move so fast that it's hard to get an exact bearing on framing when lining up a photograph. It takes 3-4 seconds to move from maximum wideangle to extreme telephoto.
Also offering just the right amount of give under the thumb to avoid accidentally slipping from one setting to another is the halfpenny sized mode dial that sits next to the shutter release. The modes here are identical to the ones on the TZ20, namely Auto/intelligent auto mode, next to the familiar quartet of program, aperture priority, shutter priority, manual, along with custom mode, aforementioned 3D mode, scene mode, and no fewer than two customizable 'My Scene' modes for a short cut to your favourite setting.
To the left of this again are mirrored dual pinpricks housing the left and right stereo microphones, unmarked on the Leica, as are the raised hump for the GPS unit sitting next to it and the built-in speaker further along. Generally the V-LUX 30 presents more of an understated, less 'fussy' appearance than the Panasonic, letting its branding do the sales pitch and assuming its target audience already know what various features are (and do) without having to be led by the hand to them.
A case in point, whereas the switch top right of the backplate on the Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ20 for flicking between capture and playback settings is highlighted with red and green logos respectively, on the Leica these are again an understated white on black. This is a camera as we have already opined that doesn't feel the need to 'shout', though of course that's a subtle difference at best.
However, in having a switch for alternating between the two most important modes on the camera rather than a dedicated playback button, this means that if a new opportunity for a photograph presents itself while you're reviewing a shot, a quick half press of the shutter release won't throw you back into capture mode, so it's less intuitive in this fashion than some rivals.
The other backplate controls on the Leica are otherwise identical to the TZ20. Showing that this is a snapshot with enthusiast pretensions we get a dedicated 'exposure' button sitting between aforementioned switch and familiar four-way control pad. Give this a press when in aperture priority mode to incrementally alter the lens aperture from f/3.3 to f/6.3 as your heart and subject desires. Likewise give it a press in shutter priority mode to move from 1/4000 sec to 8 seconds. In manual mode, tweaks to both settings can be made and we also get a +/- 2Ev exposure slider flashing up on screen.
The four way control pad has settings at points north, east, south and west for likewise adjusting exposure, flash settings (auto, auto with red eye reduction, forced flash, slow sync with red eye, forced flash off), switching to macro mode or alighting on the self timer options. At the centre of this pad is an equally familiar menu/set button, a press of which brings up a four square grid of options on screen, with a red, black and white colour palette that will be visually pleasing to White Stripes officiandos. Starting top left and moving clockwise through the options we get record mode, motion picture mode, set up mode and finally GPS mode.
|Memory Card Slot||Battery Compartment|
In record mode the GPS mode can be turned on/off - if left to on it's active even when the camera is deactivated, which also means the little indicator lamp next to the GPS unit on the top plate is permanently lit with a green glow. There's also an airplane mode whereby GPS operation can be paused if you board a flight - basically when you turn the camera off, and then automatically re-starts when you turn the camera back on at your destination.
The last two buttons at the bottom of the camera back are for self-explanatory display and marginally less obvious 'Q Menu' functions - the latter being Panasonic's Quick menu short cut, a press of which brings up a toolbar of common/key settings to save having to drill into the menus proper to otherwise find them. In program mode for example the options we get quick access to are the GPS settings, drive modes (including up to 60fps burst shooting at reduced 2.5 megapixels), AF modes (single area, 23-area, spot, face detection, AF tracking options), white balance, ISO (a modest ISO100 to ISO1600 manually selectable), movie record quality (HD, VGA or QVGA), and the ability to change the LCD power/brightness settings. This same 'Q Menu' button also doubles up as a handy delete button when in review mode only.
On the right hand flank of the camera when viewed from the back we get a plastic flap protecting an HDMI output next to a separate shared port for AV/USB out, and above this a thread for attaching the provided wrist strap, thicker than the usual in-the-box 'freebie' and with interwoven black and white checkerboard-type design. Such little details, overlooked on your regular digicam, are important on a Leica; it's all about the attention to detail.
While the opposite flank of the camera is devoid of any details whatsoever, the bottom features the usual slightly off-centre screw thread for attaching it to a tripod, and a sliding catch operating a door protecting the joint battery and SD/SDHC/SDXC compartment - battery life being good for that adequate 260 shots as mentioned earlier. Though this is Leica Germany, we also get a hint at its shared birth with a 'made in Japan' inscription.
So, what of the pictures the Leica produces? Do they, as one might reasonably expect from a model with this sort of price tag, transcend what we expect from what is, at the end of the day, another snapshot camera? Read on to find out.